“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.” Wilfred Owen
All this year and particularly so this week on the lead up to today, November 11th, we are remembering those who were killed in the war to end all wars- World War 1- also known as The Great War.
The 1914 – 1918 war was a conflict raged by Empires ruled over by closely related members of the same Royal family and ambitious politicians.
The death toll for humans was beyond any horror previously experienced. The figures can only be estimates but it is thought that 10 million combatants were killed and 7 million civilians. Then there was the disease that rampaged through areas where the injured, dying and displaced civilians were sheltering -perhaps 2 million – with 6 million people ‘unaccounted’ for.
In the UK and Scotland we tend to concentrate on the war as it took place on the Western Front but this was in all meanings of the word a world war. These Empires who marched their men into battle had colonies and ambitions beyond this conflict so those people too were dragged into the carnage.
In Scotland Dr Elsie Inglis whose efforts to set up mobile hospital units were rejected by the British Government was welcomed to do so by France and Serbia. The Scottish Women’s Hospitals had bases and mobile units. They were run by women doctors and hundreds of nurses. It is thought that 1,500 nurses from all over the world, died as a result of their work in WW1.
The Orcadian Woman’s Suffrage Society, ceased its campaign for votes for women in 1914 and put all its efforts into the war effort. Its donations paid for ‘The Orcadian Bed’, a sponsored bed in one of Dr Inglis’ hospitals located in northern France.
Orcadian Dr Mary McNeill from Holm worked tirelessly in the Scottish Women’s Hospitals especially out in Serbia where the devastation and disease inflicted appalling horrors on both the military and civilian population.
Dr McNeill’s brother, Captain David McNeill, also a doctor,served in France with the Medical Corps.
Another of her brothers William, was a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR). He was drowned on January 25th 1917 when the Laurentic was torpedoed off the Irish Coast. He was aged 34, leaving behind a wife and young child. It was reported that Willie wouldn’t leave the ship until he had checked everyone was out.
When the Laurentic went down 354 lives were lost and there were 121 survivors. It was carrying 43 tons of gold ingots – 20 have never been recovered – even though there was a huge effort made to recover them. As for the sailors , many froze to death in the lifeboats and bodies continued to be washed ashore for several weeks.
Willie McNeill’s body was washed ashore on Heisker, Isle of Barra. It is buried there. One other grave on the island is that of a German submarine officer. The graves are isolated and unprotected – but cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves.
Yet another of Mary’s brothers Patrick, volunteered on the first day of WW1. He served on HMS Emperor of India but died of pneumonia in the same week as Willie – January 1917.
Mary’s youngest brother ,Duncan McNeill was wounded in Palestine, not seriously but nearly dies of enteric fever. He returns to Orkney.
This was a war caught between the accelerated invention of new and more ‘efficient’ armaments and 19th Century military tactics – cavalry charges against machine guns and animals used as beasts of burden to transport men and munitions.
Of those animals killed in WW1 – 8 million horses plus an unknown number of donkeys and mules, 100,000 pigeons, and an unknown number of dogs, Elephants and camels.
World War One – The war to end all wars – But it wasn’t.
Reporter: Fiona Grahame